[KAPALUA, Hawaii] SCANNING the sumptuous breakfast buffet, the golfer Charlie Beljan looked like any other hotel guest in his shorts, flip-flops and T-shirt with a "hang loose" decal. The hand with the pinkie and thumb raised, and the three middle fingers curled in a signal that everything is all right belied Beljan's low-grade unease.
He held his breath as he passed the table with the plates of deli meats and smoked salmon, and ignored the tray of fluffy scrambled eggs. He paused at the omelette bar only long enough to spoon grated cheese and diced red peppers over his mound of hash browns, which he had carefully arranged on his plate so they did not touch the fresh pineapple chunks he would sprinkle pepper on before eating. As Beljan tucked into his meal at a table with an unobstructed view of swaying palms and the shimmering Pacific Ocean, he recalled when he first realized he was considered quirky. A seventh-grade classmate described him to a girl as "the infamous Charlie Beljan". "So this goes back a long time ago," said Beljan, who is 28.
Starting the PGA Tour season surrounded by surf, sand and some of the game's brightest stars in the Tournament of Champions this weekend is a dream come true for Beljan, one of nine first-time winners on the tour last year. Three other tour rookies won in 2012, but none in more memorable fashion than Beljan.
Beljan's second-round 64 in the season-ending tournament at Walt Disney World in November was riveting, an unscripted medical drama that played out on camera.
With paramedics shadowing him in a cart, Beljan staggered between shots and sometimes had to sit down on the fairways because of symptoms he associated with a heart attack. After signing for one of his lowest scores of the year, Beljan left the course in an ambulance, suffering from what turned out to be a panic attack.
By hanging on to win the tournament, Beljan became an instant hero to the perpetually anxious, someone who sheds light on a disorder that feeds off darkness.
Before gaining his 2012 PGA Tour privileges at qualifying school, Beljan won the 2002 US Junior Amateur, was a second-team All-American at New Mexico and won eight times on the Gateway tour, a developmental pro circuit. He finished last season ranked second on the tour in driving distance behind Bubba Watson with a 311.6-yard average. He is 166th in the world rankings and aspires to win an event before April so he can compete in the Masters.
Glen Millican, who coached Beljan at New Mexico, said that the first time he saw Beljan swing a club at a junior tournament, his contact was so pure that Millican remarked to an assistant, "That guy's ball makes a different sound than most professionals' balls do."
The disconnect between Beljan's sunny exterior and stormy interior does not surprise the author Daniel Smith, who wrote a memoir, Monkey Mind, detailing his anxiety disorder. In a telephone interview, Smith described himself as similarly goofy and gregarious and said, "You can come across as very self-assured, very confident, very strong and be riddled with anxiety."
Beljan's quirky diet also makes sense to Smith, his food choices a neurotic stew aimed at maintaining order in his world. Beljan will eat pasta as long as it does not have tomato sauce and pizza even though it does. He cannot touch cooked turkey, cannot stand the smell of canned tuna and will not eat a hamburger but will eat a steak as long as it is a filet. He loves cheesecake but will not look at eggs. On Wednesday, he went to a five-course luau and ate nothing. Because foraging for food can be exhausting when one's tastes are so narrow, Beljan sometimes would not bother eating. He skipped meals and never packed food in his bag during rounds. The day of his panic attack on the golf course, he had not had a meal in nearly 20 hours. He has vowed to rectify this behaviour by carrying bananas and peanut butter sandwiches this season. In September, Beljan's wife, Merisa, gave birth to their son, Graham. The stress of caring for an infant, and the jolt it sent through Beljan's ordered universe, sent his anxiety into overdrive.
"I was handed this baby and it was like, 'Now what do I do?"' Beljan said, adding, "There's no more downtime to relax." - NYT